I have a huge bone to pick with Monsanto, a company that is steadily suborning our rights to have naturally-grown crops in America and the world over.
Very recently, they have used heavy-handed measures to get Whole Foods to accept their genetically-modified "FrankenFoods" as offerings in their stores. This, I believe, goes against the entire idea of what Whole Foods offered to the public.
Presented below is an interview between Michael Besancon of Whole Foods, and Dr. Joseph Mercola - the entire interview document can be seen at this link:
Please become informed about the things you are ingesting and offering to your families.
A Special Interview with Michael Besancon - Whole Foods
DM: Dr. Joseph Mercola, DO
MB: Michael Besancon
DM: Welcome everyone, this is Dr. Mercola. Today, we have Michael Besancon who is
a representative from Whole Foods to help us understand their position with the recent
approval of the genetically modified alfalfa crops.
It’s just kind of shocking in the light of the fact that the genetically modified alfalfa is
modified to use an herbicide (roundup) in light of the fact that 95% or so of the alfalfa
currently being grown does not require the use of herbicides. It seems an unnecessary
component. One could lightly dismiss this but most people are unaware that it’s the
fourth largest crop grown in the United States so it does have significance.
Whole Foods was involved in some of the initial discussions. We have recently had the
Organic Consumers Association’s Ronnie Cummins express their position. We wanted
to give Whole Foods the opportunity to express theirs.
Thank you for joining us today, Michael.
MB: It’s my pleasure.
DM: Can you tell our listeners what your position is with Whole Foods?
MB: I’m the senior global vice-president of procurement, distribution, and
DM: Would you care to comment on what I just mentioned with respect to Whole Foods’
involvement to help guide our listeners and understand with respect to Whole Foods
how the position came about.
MB: The observation on GMOs goes back to 1993-1994. We have been consistent for
the last almost two decades in supporting labeling of GMO containing products or GMO
grown grains whatever that is.
The issue around alfalfa is we work with a number of other companies in the industry as
well as other retailers to do what we could to influence the Department of Agriculture to
not approve the unlimited use of the GMO-modified alfalfa.
As we get down to the every end, we discovered that there were going to be only two
options. One was a hundred percent deregulation or what I think was probably
erroneously referred to as a coexistence policy where GMO alfalfa would be grown as
well as conventional or organic alfalfa.
What we were presented with were two options. We did our best to get the lesser of the
two evils which was some protection for seed, some protection for conventional and
organic farmers. In the end, that was fruitless. We were unable to move the machinery
to get what we thought was a last ditch effort and the best case that we could with what
was presented to us.
DM: Were you actually present at those meetings?
MB: I was not but the CEO and co-CEO Walter Robb, as well as the CEOs of
Stonyfield, Organic Valley and other companies were in those meetings as well as
some other representatives of Whole Foods markets.
DM: Do you have any speculation as to why they chose to ignore the recommendation
they initially agreed to, at least the government?
MB: Why the government refused to acknowledge it or to accept it? I think because the
policy of the government at this time appears to be that there is no differentiation
between a genetically modified feed and crop and a conventional organic one and that
there is no harm. That’s their position. We feel that it’s certainly the right of the
consumer to know what’s been grown with genetically modified seeds or processed with
genetically modified ingredients.
DM: What ongoing effort is Whole Foods committed to with respect to helping
consumers identify what foods contain GMO? Do you have a policy to exclude them
from your store?
MB: It’s almost impossible currently to exclude from any product because those crops
that are out there; corn, canola, soy are ubiquitous. They are in many, many products.
We have taken the tactic that we should support. We were founding members of the
Non-GMO Project with the intent of labeling products as containing no more than 0.9%
GMO, the contaminant, because there is the pollen drift that is contaminating
What really we’re looking for has happened has happened with rBST is that when the
consumers didn’t want the product and didn’t buy it, in California for instance, the
predominant milk is without RBST. That’s because the consumers voted and the market
controlled that ingredient, controlled that process.
What we’re hoping is that with the Non-GMO Project, with the certification of ingredients
in a product being non-GMO that the consumers will vote. The consumers will make
their voices known both with their pocketbooks and their purchase but also with
speaking to their representatives wherever they may be.
The one that we think that we can do the best -- we have committed to it with our private
label product. We are committed to encouraging everyone in the industry that sells
natural or organic products to label their products through the Non-GMO Project as
DM: We have to update our listeners as to what the current status is or where you are in
that process of identifying the foods that are being sold at Whole Foods whether they’re
part of the Non-GMO Project?
MB: There is a lot of products in the market regardless of whether it’s a Whole Foods
market or anywhere else that has a label on it that says non-GMO. We were concerned
about that because there was no auditing agency for that. That’s why we supported the
Non-GMO Project as we have with organic certification, the various gluten free
You need somebody that’s a third party that is saying that they have done the audit and
there is no more than 0.9% contamination from GMO organism. That’s really what we’re
M: I’m just still a bit unsure as to what the process is as to when the typical consumer
can go into a Whole Foods market and be able to differentiate between the foods there.
MB: That would be the seal on the product, the Non-GMO Project certified. That’s like
the government, the USDA…
DM: The USDA seal.
MB: The seal on organic.
DM: So it’s really being left up to the manufacturers to go through the process of having
their foods certified then having that label included on their food.
MB: That’s correct. As well as with our own.
DM: Sure. What percentage of the food do you sell at your stores are your own brand?
MB: It depends on the category because it can be 16 to 25 percent.
DM: So it’s significant. I believe the volume of food you sell annually is somewhere
about 8 billion dollars or so?
MB: It’s approaching 10. But you have to also consider the fact that outside of those,
you know, canola, soy, cotton, corn -- you don’t get much cotton in food other than
some cotton oil that might be in somebody’s product. There are currently hundreds or
thousands whatever of organisms that have not been modified. The consumer making
the choice to buy organic and to buy products that are labeled and certified non-GMO
hopefully will give us a choice and create a consideration of continuing with any given
crop as a GMO crop.
DM: I’m still curious, about 25% of the food you sell is your own store brand,
approximately, as you said, it depends on the category of food but just roughly in that
ballpark. Where is Whole Foods with respect to labeling the foods as non-GMO in the
MB: All the private labeled products are going through the audit processes; organic and
DM: When do you anticipate that process being completed?
MB: It will take a year or more.
DM: So we’re looking at some time in mid-2012?
MB: Something like that. You have a lot of products, a lot of ingredients. It becomes
extremely complex. So what you do is you target those that are obvious. There are
many that don’t need a certification today because they’re not genetically modified to
begin with. Broccoli doesn’t need to be certified today because it doesn’t have a GMO
component potentially unless it comes out tomorrow. It’s possible.
DM: That’s a good point but the typical consumer wouldn’t necessarily know that so will
there be some type of labeling to inform the consumer that this is the case?
MB: I think that the intention is to do all of them. I’m saying…I’m directing it. The
intention is to do all of it but you want to do is you want to get to the ones that have the
greatest potential first. It’s like when people were labeling products oil free and there
was never any oil in the product to begin with. You don’t want to make statements like
that, you know, it’s obvious. It’s oil free or it’s salt free or whatever. It never intended
any, you know, there weren’t going to be in. So if there is a crop whether it’s peas or
corn -- not corn because corn is an issue -- but many of the other products are not in
DM: It would seem that would be a relatively easy part of the equation if they at this
point in time whatever those products or crops were are not GMO then they could just
get a label right away and that would inform the consumer. Because even though it’s
not a threat to them the consumer doesn’t know that.
MB: You are correct. There are some economics involved because there are labels.
When the labels are running down then you make that change.
DM: Right sure.
MB: That’s why it goes through that process.
DM: One wants to be somewhat efficient in the resources and not waste your labels that
are already printed of course.
MB: And waste the labels and to have authenticity in the certification that actually has to
have the audit process. As we ramp up with the Non-GMO Project is supported by other
packaged food producers then there will be more auditors and that process can be
expedited. We’re in the beginning stages of this. We’re looking for support from the
manufacturers. Honestly, we’re looking for support from your listeners to buy those
products that have been certified.
DM: We probably have one of the largest group in the United States with respect to
informed consumers making that choice that’s why I think this conversation is so crucial
because they really need the information to make an educated choice.
Right now they just don’t really have the tools because of relatively sophisticated not
necessarily marketing but manipulation by Monsanto through the Federal government
and basically eliminating the labeling of certain foods and making it actually nearly
illegal to put a label on it as not containing GMO without some type of government
MB: As you know in the beginning with the rBST you weren’t allowed to label it rBST;
milk produced without the rBST. We’re not in that place currently. We would certainly
not like to be in that place. The greatest alternative for your listeners at this time is to
buy organic because that’s your safest bet. If it’s certified organic it has been grown
without genetically modified feed.
That’s been my position for the better part of the decade on a personal level is I would
buy organic. That assures me as much as one can be assured in this world that what
I’m getting is a product that was grown without the genetically modified feed.
DM: There are a number of certifications for organic also, the USDA of course being
one. I’m wondering if you could just comment on those different certifications and the
ones that Whole Foods uses.
MB: There is (indiscernible 16:26). There is organic (indiscernible 16:29). There are a
lot of different organizations. I can’t speak about any one of them individually other than
that they are all reviewed for their authenticity and for their accuracy. That’s something
that we do, we would audit a great deal particularly on fresh produce.
DM: If your audit doesn’t confirm that there is a certification process that’s up to
standards then you don’t accept that label in your store?
MB: Then you wouldn’t accept that label on the store.
DM: That’s the current policy of Whole Foods?
DM: It certainly sounds like a good approach and a reasonable process. Of course with
a multi-billion dollar company and hundreds of millions or billions of dollars for the food
industry, this process doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take some time. It sounds
like we’re moving in the direction to give consumers the power they need to make an
educated choice and really shift the situation around to more what is currently present in
I think that pretty much sums up what we wanted to review just to get a really thorough
understanding of what had happened and transpired and really clear up some of the
confusion that it appears that the Organic Consumer Association was creating with their
I think both parties seem to be well intentioned. Looking at it from an overview, it seems
that w would have the same end goal and it seems somewhat foolish to be divisive
when we can really work together to achieve the goal.
MB: What’s the term when you kill your siblings? If you kill your siblings, if you kill the
people and you’re saying family, you know, we should be together on this issue. We
shouldn’t be attacking each other. We do, as you point out, have the same ultimate
I have talked to the folks at OCA and encouraged them to attack the people who need
to be attacked and not the people who are on your side. Even if you get down to just a
practical business part of it, our business survival requires the integrity of these
products. We certainly wouldn’t join with Monsanto.
DM: Sure. One of the Organic Consumers Association’s concern was what appears
from their perspective to be somewhat of a deceptive practice where the typical
consumer from their perspective is going into the Whole Foods market with the
understanding that they provide a higher quality product and really in many ways is
setting the standard for the contemporary United States food store and really leading
the field from most people’s observations.
The concern is that the thought is that most of the items they are going to be purchasing
there are going to be healthier and there really isn’t a significant effort being done to
differentiate the healthier organic brands versus the ones that are more traditional.
That’s my understanding of the concern. I’m wondering if you can comment on that.
MB: The push for the company from procurement which is my area is to increase the
amount of organic in every category. Fifty-three percent of our total sales in produce are
organic now. There are products that are not available year round.
There are a lot of reasons why it’s only 53%. There are apples you can’t buy on the
East Coast because of the growing conditions but we keep pushing that and there are
also supply issues. People want strawberries year round. If we don’t have strawberries,
they’re going down the street. We need to be able to supply what the consumer is
The push is for organic. Our top compete in meetings with vendors are always towards
the organic and organic ingredients. One, that’s our business and two, that’s our
mission. Our first core value is to sell the highest quality natural and organic food
My personal mission has been for 40 years of being in the industry is to provide those
foods to as many people as possible at the best price possible. That’s (indiscernible
DM: I guess the concern since the food category that is most appropriate here is the
produce. If you go typically into the produce department which I think for most people
listening is the most important section of the grocery store, you really need to be a
discerning consumer to differentiate between the organic versus the conventional. I
mean it’s there but you have to look really carefully. You just can’t blindly pick up a
cucumber without looking and examining whether it’s conventional or organic. That has
been my experience.
MB: That’s absolutely true. I believe and I have always believed personally and I think
it’s a company position is that while we do our diligence and we sign the product, we
don’t want the consumer to abdicate their own personal responsibility for knowing what
it is they’re buying. I don’t want to be in that position personally. I want folks to be aware
and if they are aware, then they will make the choices that work for them and hopefully
those choices will be organic.
Look at what we have done with seafood rating, with rating products in the case on their
sustainability, and telling people that the product is read and not sustainable and that
we’re going to be eliminating that product over time is I think a fairly courageous
position for a food retailer to take, the same thing with the meat.
We’ve just announced the five step program on our beef, chicken and pork. Those are
all designed to move the continuum forward for in that case animal compassion as well
as the condition that the ingredients whatever the feed and all of that towards organic
and towards as clean as possible.
We’re doing the same thing with the Non-GMO Project. We’ll do the same thing in
pushing the vendors towards organic and featuring organic. I think we’re doing pretty
good job of providing the consumer with an alternative. Well, it say more.
DM: Exactly, I don’t think anyone could argue the fact that on a nationwide basis, if
you’re going to seek out healthy foods, the best place to go is Whole Foods, as a brand.
I mean, there is no brand that beats you. You have really achieved the pinnacle of that
perspective. You’re most in the major markets so it’s relatively easy to find a place to
acquire good food.
The challenge, I’m not sure that I understand that you have addressed it is it’s there. It’s
in the store but I think it could be made a lot easier that the identification of conventional
versus organic. Typically, it’s a small little a word that you really have search for rather
than it being something that’s really obvious. I think that many people are confused
because it’s not clear.
MB: There are regulations because we’re a certified organic retailer. There are
regulations for how you put the produce on the stand and write down what can be
adjacent to the product. You can’t have an organic and a conventional apple touching
each other. So you have to have a break.
It’s isn’t as difficult in my mind to discern the organic in produce because it is signed
organic and it is signed conventional. It is signed local. In fact, at some point we have a
forest of signs. If anything, you were trying to communicate too much, that becomes
confusing because there is so much messaging going on.
But there is also on most organic produce, there is a band on the greens or there is a
sticker on the fruit identifying it as organic as well as the signage. Again, I want people
DM: So those are key pointers if you’re looking for produce. Say, you have celery, if it’s
an organic celery, it’s going to have an organic label around it or a wire wrap. If it’s a
piece of fruit, it will have an organic sticker and some of the vegetables will have them
also. That’s another good way to differentiate between the two.
MB: You have to pay attention. You can’t go in blindly. That’s why I don’t want the
consumer to not read labels, to not look at signs. I want them to take responsibility for
that person. On a personal level I think that that would be a company policy. You can’t
deluded if you’re eyes are open.
DM: That’s terrific. I thank you for enlightening us as to Whole Foods’ position and also
for being a representative of Whole Foods’ commitment to really educating the
consumer so that we can make a difference and vote with our pocketbook which is
really one of the most powerful economic positions that we can take that would really
influence the industry in the right direction.
MB: I couldn’t agree more. The issue here is that the market and the consumer’s choice
can change policy and it will change policy faster than anything that we could do as an
industry. So whether you’re buying at Whole Foods or you’re buying in a conventional
store, buy organic and support the Non-GMO Project certified product.